Week Ten: Myanmar

In partnership with ILGA Asia


Dr. Jasmin Lilian Diab, Institute for Migration Studies, Lebanese American University
Dr. Charbel Maydaa, UKRI-GCRF Gender, Justice and Security Hub; ILGA Asia
Bechara Samneh, ILGA Asia


Overview of the Conflict

In mid-2017, a violent crackdown by Myanmar’s army on Rohingya Muslims sent hundreds of thousands fleeing across the border into neighboring Bangladesh by sea or on foot. The United Nations later described this mass exodus as a “textbook example of ethnic cleansing.” By January 2020, the International Court of Justice ordered the Buddhist-majority country to undertake immediate measures to protect members of its Rohingya community from what many describe as genocide. While the army in Myanmar has outwardly claimed to be fighting Rohingya militants, and denied targeting civilians, international human rights organizations and governments alike have described what they deem as mass human rights violations and war crimes committed by the government.

Described by UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres as “one of, if not the, most discriminated people in the world,” the Rohingya are one of Myanmar’s many ethnic minorities. The Rohingya, who numbered around one million in Myanmar at the beginning of 2017, remain one of the many ethnic minorities in the country. Rohingya Muslims constitute the largest group of Muslims in Myanmar, with the majority of them residing in the Rakhine state. They possess their own language and culture, and claim to be descendants of Arab traders and other groups who have settled in the region for centuries. However, Myanmar (a predominantly Buddhist country), denies the Rohingya citizenship and further excludes them from their national census. Myanmar continues to claim that they are illegal immigrants from Bangladesh.

The Rohingya genocide has taken place across two phases to date: (1) A military crackdown that occurred from October 2016 to January 2017; and (2) an ongoing military attack against the community since August 2017. According to UNHCR, the crisis has forced over one million Rohingya to flee to neighboring countries. Most fled to Bangladesh, resulting in the creation of the world’s largest refugee camp, while others escaped to India, Thailand, Malaysia, and other parts of South and Southeast Asia, where they continue to endure marginalization and persecution. The United States, United Kingdom, and other countries refer to the events as “ethnic cleansing.”

Displacement in Numbers

Since the onset of the latest conflict, Rohingyas have migrated across the region in significant numbers. Estimates of their numbers are often much higher than official figures. The latest mass exodus commenced in August 2017, after Rohingya Arsa militants launched deadly attacks on more than thirty police posts. Rohingyas arriving in Bangladesh fled after troops, backed by local Buddhist mobs, responded by burning their villages and killing civilians.

According to international medical charity Doctors without Borders, at least 6,700 Rohingya, including at least 730 children, were killed in the month following the breakout of violence. Amnesty International claimed that the Myanmar military also raped and abused Rohingya women and girls. The international organization has described the actions carried out by Myanmar against the Rohingya as “crimes against humanity” and “serious human rights violations under international law.” According to Human Rights Watch reports, at least 288 villages were partially or totally destroyed by fire in northern Rakhine state after August 2017. Since this date, more than 744,400 people from Myanmar have fled to Bangladesh, bringing the total of Myanmar refugees to close to one million. According to UN Women, an estimated 80% of the refugees are women and children. Many of the women had to make the journey while pregnant or while carrying their children.

Kutupalong, located in the coastal district of Cox’s Bazar, is currently the largest refugee camp in the world according to UNHCR. The so-called mega camp is home to over one million refugees, predominantly Rohingya. In this camp, women lack privacy, safety, and access to sanitation facilities. According to Doctors without Borders, many children continue to suffer from traumatic experiences, skin diseases, diarrhea and fevers. According to a report published by the International Rescue Committee, gender-based violence (GBV) is rampant, life-threatening and underreported.

Realities in Host Countries

The massive numbers of Rohingya refugees who fled to Bangladesh in 2017 joined hundreds of thousands of Rohingya who had already fled Myanmar in 1978, 1991-1992, and again in 2016 following violent attacks. In Bangladesh, the dire conditions in the refugee camps, the lack of proper site planning and the heavy rainy seasons have resulted in severe flooding in and around the Cox’s Bazar refugee camps, leaving thousands in urgent need of food, water and sanitation according to Oxfam.

In March 2019, Bangladesh announced it would no longer accept Rohingya fleeing Myanmar. While an agreement for the return of Rohingya refugees was reached in 2018, none of them safely or successfully returned. According to testimonies, the majority of them will not return unless they are granted citizenship, and unless the government Myanmar assists them in returning safely. Rohingya who remain in Myanmar face “a greater threat of genocide than ever,” according to UN reports. Amid government attempts to “erase their identity and remove them from the country,” the UN Independent International Fact-Finding Mission found evidence of “killings, rapes, torture, forced displacement and other grave rights violations” that remain unchanged. According to the report, this is largely due to a lack of accountability and Myanmar’s failure to fully investigate allegations or criminalise genocide. According to an exploratory qualitative research conducted by the Women’s Refugee Commission on sexual violence against men and boys (including those with diverse sexual orientations and/or gender identity/expression) in Bangladesh (Cox’s Bazar), LGBTQ+ Rohingya refugees face rape, sexual exploitation, harrassment, and remain vulnerable to arbitrary arrests and torture. The Rakhine province itself remains the site of an ongoing conflict between the army and rebels from the Buddhist-majority Rakhine ethnic group.

International Political, Legal and Humanitarian Efforts

A report published by UN investigators in 2018 found Myanmar’s military guilty of carrying out mass killings and rapes with “genocidal intent.” The report additionally found conclusive evidence that the actions of the country’s armed forces, known as the Tatmadaw, “undoubtedly amounted to the gravest crimes under international law” in Rakhine, as well as in Kachin and Shan, states also affected by ongoing internal conflicts and violence. The International Court of Justice case lodged by Gambia on behalf of dozens of other Muslim countries in 2019, called for emergency measures to be taken against the Myanmar military until a more comprehensive investigation can be carried out. Aung San Suu Kyi, Myanmar’s leader, rejected allegations of genocide when she appeared at the ICJ in December 2019. However in January 2020, the court’s initial ruling ordered Myanmar to “prevent genocide” and undertake emergency measures to protect the Rohingya from being persecuted and killed.

In November 2019, the International Criminal Court approved a full investigation into the case of the Rohingya in Myanmar. Despite the fact that Myanmar itself is not a member of the court, the ICC ruled it had jurisdiction in the case because Bangladesh, where victims fled to, is in fact a member. Myanmar continues to deny carrying out genocide and ensures it is carrying out its own investigations into the events of 2017. While Myanmar’s Independent Commission of Enquiry has admitted that members of the security forces may have carried out “war crimes, serious human rights violations, and violations of domestic law,” in their 2020 investigation, they claimed that there was no evidence of genocide. With more than half a million Rohingya believed to still be living in Myanmar’s Northern Rakhine province, the UN has warned there is a “serious risk that genocidal actions may occur or recur.”

A Joint Response Plan launched in 2019 by the United Nations Office for Humanitarian Affairs, requested $920.5 million to provide life-saving assistance to 1.2 million people, including Rohingya refugees who fled Myanmar to Bangladesh and local host communities. By April 2019, the appeal was only 17% funded. According to the UN agency, priority needs continue to include food, water and sanitation, shelter, and medical care.